Entrepreneur, U Benefactor “Pinky” McNamara Dies

McNamara gave millions to his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, and enjoyed an unconventional career of buying bankrupt or foreclosed small businesses and using borrowed money to resurrect them.

Richard “Pinky” McNamara-an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and former University of Minnesota regent and Golden Gopher football star-died Monday, the university said. He was 78.

“There are few families whose name is more identified with Gopher Athletics than the McNamaras,” the U's Director of Athletics Joel Maturi said Monday. “Obviously, Pinky has been so generous in his involvement with the university, serving as a regent, and his involvement in athletics, not only with his gifts, but also his presence both in the academic area and the athletic area. He was also incredibly involved with the alumni association and obviously enjoyed much success on the field as a student-athlete.”

From humble beginnings in Hastings, McNamara went to the U of M on an athletic scholarship and was a three-year letter winner for the Gopher football team. He graduated with a bachelor of arts in 1956.

McNamara carved out his unconventional career by buying bankrupt or foreclosed small businesses and resurrecting them. But he started out at a sales and marketing job with grain merchant Archer Daniels Midland, which he held for seven years.

In 1968, he bought his first business from First National Bank of Minneapolis (now U.S. Bank)-Seelye Plastics, a Bloomington-based thermoplastics maker and distributor. He borrowed money from Northwestern National Bank of Minneapolis (now Wells Fargo) to do it, because First National refused to bankroll the business a second time. Under McNamara's direction, Seelye expanded its manufacturing of thermoplastic products and extended its geographic sales reach.

A couple of years after buying Seelye, First National Bank asked McNamara if he wanted to try to save another defunct business. He did-and that's how it went for several decades, with McNamara buying new businesses and using borrowed money to reinvigorate them.

In 1995, McNamara founded Activar, an Edina-based holding company that comprised 14 private companies in three categories (plastics, construction supply, and industrial manufacturing), and two publicly owned tech companies.

“I like the independence of being on my own,” he told Twin Cities Business upon his induction into the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame in 1994. “And I like the fact that everything that happens to me, or for me, is because of me.”

McNamara earned the U of M's prestigious Outstanding Achievement Award in 1997-and he served as a trustee for the University of Minnesota Foundation and was named to the Board of Regents in 2001.

Through a $3 million gift given in 1992, McNamara was responsible for the building of the U's College of Liberal Arts advising center. Six years later, he gave another $10 million, which was divided among the College of Liberal Arts, the men's athletic departments, and the alumni center, which bears his name. That gift was one of the largest ever received by the university. McNamara also was instrumental in raising funds for the construction of the new home of the Gopher football team-TCF Bank Stadium.

A funeral is scheduled for May 31; arrangements have not yet been finalized.